Boyce Richardson  @  ChelseaGreen

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My Log 221: shocking contrast: earthquakes in New Zealand and Haiti, no death to the wealthy, 300,000 for the poor

Posted on Monday, September 13th, 2010 at 12:15 pm by Boyce Richardson

There’s probably never been a more convincing demonstration of the debilitating effect of poverty on people, and on society, than the contrast between the effects of the Haitian and New Zealand earthquakes.

The earthquakes were of roughly the same intensity — in fact, I believe the New Zealand quake was slightly more severe than the Haitian — yet in New Zealand, a wealthy, ordered society, no one was killed, not one person. While in Haiti, probably the poorest country on earth, racked by corruption, violence, societal breakdown, exploited mercilessly for generations by the world’s wealth-owners, and by its own small, wealthy elite, more than 300,000 people were killed.

At its simplest, I suppose you could say the basic difference was between a society with strong regulations, leading to building codes and the like, which ensure that buildings are constructed to a minimum, high standard of safety; and a society almost without a serious government that has virtually no regulation, where anything is acceptable, including shoddy construction of homes, public buildings, and anything in between.

There are ironies, too, bitter ones: for in Christchurch, well-equipped hospitals were no doubt standing ready, geared up for an influx of wounded victims, which never arrived. While in Haiti, as the reports sent out to me by Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) make clear, most of the hospitals were powerless to cope, because of their shortage of trained personnel, amounting, in some cases to an entire lack of, drugs and supplies. This meant that volunteer organizations, most of them, I suppose, internationally inspired, like MSF, were called on to perform tens of thousands of operations and attend to hundreds of thousands of wounded victims.

Though there is a serious, and huge international discussion about the efficacy of aid, it has always been clear that the world’s impoverished people require an injection from the prosperous of some kind of resources to get them going towards a better life. It may be true that some aid, especially aid from the West which is designed to go more to the providers of the aid than to the oppressed victims of poverty, can do more harm than good, and there is no doubt that the provision of subsidized Western food can have the effect of undermining the very productive capacity of an impoverished country, the encouragement of which should be the first priority of an aid programme.

I have had some experiences that encourage me to add some qualifications to the above outline. In China in the 1970s I filmed in an impoverished village, the poorest I have ever seen in terms of income, where every child was in school, every family had a house, every worker a job, and the general level of health was about equivalent to our own. Of course, it was achieved by a political system much more authoritarian than our own, yet it did seem to have delivered the qualities that made its population happy (at least, they seemed very cheerful), productive, and full of hope, especially in comparison with comparable populations I had seen in Africa, India and South America. It was all done without any foreign aid, which was specifically forbidden from entering the country.

Yet I have to admit that system has broken down, admirable though it was, its economic assumptions having been replaced by capitalist assumptions, although the authoritarian aspects of its governance have apparently survived.

These are complicated problems, much more complicated than the automatic assumptions generally directed towards them by our Western leaders would have us believe.

Boyce Richardson is the author of Strangers Devour the Land, about the struggle of the Crees of James Bay in northern Quebec—a hunting and trapping people—to defend the territories they have occupied since time immemorial from a massive hydroelectric development.

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